Euphemistic Terms Used To Describe WWII Incarceration Of Japanese Americans Targeted At JANM Event

by Joyce Okazaki

Mako Nakagawa of Seattle, Washington, headlined
an event at the Japanese American National Museum
on August 27, 2011, where she called for the use of accurate, non-euphemistic language to describe the
World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.
Photo: Mako Nakagawa

LOS ANGELES — Mako Nakagawa of Seattle, the primary author of the Power Of Words resolution that called for use of accurate, non-euphemistic language to be used to describe the wartime experience of Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents, along with the camps used to incarcerate them, spoke at an event entitled, Let’s Get It Right! Replacing World War II Euphemistic Language: The Retelling of the Nikkei Incarceration Experience, sponsored by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) on August 27.

The event, which was presented in collaboration with The George and Sakaye Aratani Endowed Chair, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, discussed the “…need to replace government created euphemisms of World War II with more accurate terminology.”

According to the Pacific Citizen, “Nakagawa promoted the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) resolution in 2010, at their National Convention in Chicago, on the use of accurate terminology to describe the World War II incarceration of the people of Japanese descent. The resolution gained unanimous support from the JACL National Board and the National Council, made up of all the chapter delegates.”

“The primary goal of the resolution is, ‘to affect future learners of this episode of history with less distortion by misleading euphemistic terms, and concomitantly preserve and protect the essence of our United States Constitution so that this historical wrong is never again repeated.’”

Nakagawa, an educator with the Seattle School District, has been a teacher, program manager, teacher trainer, curriculum designer, and elementary school principal. She went on to hold a curriculum advisory position in multicultural education with the State Office of Public Instruction in Washington, where she developed the concept of “Cooperative Pluralism.”

After six years, Nakagawa started her own business, Mako & Associates, where she gave speeches, conducted workshops, designed projects to meet the needs of clients, specializing in the areas of diversity training and the Japanese American experience during World War II. She is also the originator of the Rainbow Program, which won awards for multicultural education. She was also the keynote speaker at the 42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, 2011.

During the program, Nakagawa reiterated her position about use of accurate terminology instead of the United States Government’s attempts at covering up what happened to the Japanese Americans. She brought up examples that the present government and media uses—all sorts of euphemisms to hide the truth, such as “collateral damage” for the bombing of women and children, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” for torturing prisoners.

She also brought up what happened at the last JACL Convention, where an emergency ad hoc committee was formed upon reading what the Educational Committee, which was selected to prepare a handbook after the 2010 convention, wrote. The handbook pinpointed the euphemistic words as targeted words, but added that they were acceptable if placed within quotation marks.

The handbook also proposed that an alternative might be the words, “American concentration camp.” However, this was not in keeping with the original resolution. Hence, the emergency resolution, which called for the handbook to be re-written in line with the original resolution, was brought up at the recently held convention in Los Angeles.

During this process, the American Jewish Committee tried to sway the vote by calling on the JACL National Board to interject their opinion on the use of the words. Despite that, the emergency resolution was passed.

Nakagawa also discussed the meaning of the euphemistic words, “evacuation,” as meaning one was to be saved from impending disaster, a rescue mission, and “relocation,” meaning moving from one place to another. The words “internment” and “internee” refer to people who are citizens of the country with which the United States is at war. They are considered enemy aliens, and in this case, the people in the camps are ruled by the Geneva Convention.

But that was not the case with the War Relocation Authority (WRA) Camps, such as Manzanar. These camps were supposed to be governed by the Constitution of the United States, but those incarcerated within the barbed wire were labeled, “non-aliens,” a totally different class to hide behind the Constitution and denied civil rights.

Nakagawa then showed a ten-minute film produced by the Office of War Information of the Motion Picture Industry, narrated by former WRA Director Milton Eisenhower, to show the extent of the propaganda perpetrated by the U.S. Government. Another short film proposed genocide of all Japanese. These were shocking and repulsive to the audience in attendance.

Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who was originally scheduled to participate in the event, was unable to attend the session, but Karen Ishizuka, author, filmmaker and former curator at JANM was present. Ishizuka, while with JANM, was instrumental in negotiating with the American Jewish Committee, during her curated exhibit, America’s Concentration Camps, shown at Ellis Island, New York, in 1998.

Ishizuka showed a slide presentation that tells the story of her book, Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration, and how she developed the exhibit. She states that the JANM staff came to agreement with the American Jewish Committee on the term, “concentration camp,” with President and Chief Executive Irene Hirano playing an important part in negotiations with the officials of the Jewish community. The final statement, issued jointly by JANM and the AJC, at the beginning of the exhibit in all of its venues, read as follows:

A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned, not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term, “concentration camp” was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars.

During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments, and summary executions; some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews and many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and political dissidents were slaughtered in the Holocaust.

In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and Bosnia.

Despite the difference, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population, and the rest of society let it happen.

In her book, Ishizuka wrote, “the extensive and persistent use of euphemisms functioned to undermine, demoralize, and gain the cooperation of the victims of the incarceration…Euphemisms deceived the American and worldwide publics in addition to Americans of Japanese ancestry.”

She also stated that she did not understand why the American Jewish Committee was again raising an issue with the terminology after the agreement was reached in 1998.

The last slide shown had the words of Raymond Okamura, who campaigned for the repeal of the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, which allowed for mass arrests and incarceration, and cautioned of the social and political repercussions of using euphemisms.

“One indication of the emotional scars left by the incarceration is the continued use of the government euphemisms by the former prisoners…If this practice persists, no one will be able to testify to the magnitude of the occurrence.”

Joyce Okazaki, who spent her part of her childhood behind the barbed wire at Manzanar, is a member of the Manzanar Committee.

Unattributed views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

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One Response to Euphemistic Terms Used To Describe WWII Incarceration Of Japanese Americans Targeted At JANM Event

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